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4th Circuit affirms certification of class action in tribal lending case
On January 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that a district court did not abuse its discretion when certifying a class action. The lawsuit alleges an individual who orchestrated an online payday lending scheme violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), engaged in unjust enrichment, and violated Virginia’s usury law by partnering with federally-recognized tribes to issue loans with allegedly usurious interest rates. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs alleged the defendant partnered with the tribes to circumvent state usury laws even though the tribes did not control the lending operation. The district court stated that, as there was “no substantive involvement” by the tribes in the lending operation and that the evidence showed that the defendant was “functionally in charge,” the lending operation—which allegedly charged interest rates exceeding Virginia’s 12 percent interest cap—could not claim tribal immunity.
After the district court certified two borrower classes, the defendant appealed, arguing, among other things, that “[b]orrowers entered into enforceable loan agreements with lending entities in which they waived their right to bring class claims against him,” and that “common issues do not predominate so as to permit class treatment in this case.” Specifically, the defendant claimed that his role in the lending operations changed throughout the class period, and that individualized “proof” and “tracing” would be necessary to prove that he “participated in the direction of the affairs of the alleged enterprise” or that he received some portion of each borrower’s interest payments.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the defendant’s assertions. It found no reason to question the district court’s conclusion that the defendant was the “de facto” head of the lending operations throughout the class period. “And the fact that [the defendant] served as the ‘de facto head’ of the lending operations for the entire class period supports the district court’s determination that the Borrowers will be able to use common proof to show that [the defendant] ‘participated in the direction of the’ lending operations such that common questions predominate over individual questions[,]” the appellate court stated. The 4th Circuit further concluded that the “record supports the district court’s conclusion that [the defendant] lied when he said he was never involved in receiving or demanding payments on [the lending operation’s] loans.”
New Jersey reaches $27.3 million settlement with merchant cash advance operation
On January 3, the New Jersey attorney general announced a $27.4 million settlement with a private equity firm, its parent company, and six other associated companies (collectively, “respondents”) to resolve allegations related to violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). According to the press release, the respondents targeted small businesses to enter into lending arrangements disguised as merchant cash advances (MCA) on future receivables. The AG claimed these loans effectively charged interest rates far exceeding the state’s usury caps. According to the attorney general’s press release, the respondents also allegedly engaged in deceptive servicing and collection practices against small businesses.
Under the terms of the consent order, the respondents are permanently enjoined from engaging in any acts or practices that violate the CFA and any applicable Advertising Regulations. The respondents have also agreed to forgive all outstanding balances for customers who entered MCAs (approximately $21.75 million) and pay $5.625 million to cover restitution, attorneys’ fees, costs of investigation and litigation and costs of administering restitution, and penalties not to exceed $250,000. The press release stated that the respondents will also (i) dismiss any pending debt collection actions against customers who had their balances forgiven as a result of the settlement; (ii) provide current customers with the ability to request modifications to their payment terms based on actual receivables; (iii) “[i]mprove internal business practices, be transparent in any terms of future MCA agreements regarding fees and reconciliation rights, and give notice to customers before taking legal action to collect on purported unpaid balances”; and (iv) ensure that all respondents, principals, and any future business entities that may result from a change in structure comply with the terms of the consent order.
Pennsylvania announces two settlements involving auto title loans
On October 14, the Pennsylvania AG announced a settlement with the owners of an auto title loan business. According to the settlement, the company made unlawful loans to Pennsylvania borrowers carrying annual interest rates over 200 percent. Under the terms of the settlement, the owners must refund over $1.5 million in unlawful interest charges to consumers. The refunds are in addition to the $3.2 million in debt cancellation victims received under an October 2021 order. The owners are also prohibited from, among other things, knowingly participating in, owning, or working for any company that extends credit to Pennsylvania residents, for seven years after they make their last payment under the settlement.
The Pennsylvania AG also announced a settlement with a Florida-based auto title lender for alleged violations of Pennsylvania usury laws and unfair and deceptive business practices. Under the terms of the settlement, the company, among other things, must cancel all outstanding loans made to Pennsylvania consumers, and refund Pennsylvania consumers all fees and interest they paid, which will result in nearly 200 consumers receiving refunds in the amount of $99,541.
District Court denies request to reverse summary judgment in FDIA suit
On August 29, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a consumer plaintiff’s request to reconsider its summary judgment order against him in a Federal Deposit Insurance Act (FDIA) suit. According to the opinion, the plaintiff accrued debt to a federally-insured, state-chartered bank, which had then assigned that debt to defendants, who were not state-chartered, federally-insured banks. The plaintiff’s debt included interest charges that had accrued at an annual rate between 24.99 percent and 25.99 percent, which the plaintiff argued could not be collected by defendants because the interest exceeded the six percent allowed under Pennsylvania's usury law. The court ruled in favor of the defendants, relying on a recently promulgated FDIC rule that determined that state usury laws are preempted by section 27 of the FDIA in cases where state usury law interferes with state-chartered, federally-insured banks' ability to make loans or when they interfere with a state-chartered, federally-insured bank’s assignee’s efforts to collect on those loans. The plaintiff requested the reconsideration of the district court's summary judgment decision and filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In his motion for reconsideration, the plaintiff argued that the court’s previous summary judgment decision was “erroneous” because: (i) the 3rd Circuit held in In re: Community Bank of Northern Virginia that “the FDIA unambiguously excludes non-bank purchasers of debt from its coverage and that deference to the FDIC’s contrary interpretation would, therefore, be inappropriate”; (ii) the FDIC’s rule cannot apply to his debts because such an application would be impermissibly retroactive; and (iii) LIPL fits within the FDIC rule’s exception for “licensing or regulatory requirements.”
The court denied the plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration, holding that the plaintiff “failed to identify an appropriate basis for reconsideration,” as the consumer’s arguments are “either a new argument that could have been presented before judgment was entered or a reprisal of an argument that the Court addressed in its original decision.” The court further noted that it would be “inappropriate for the Court to grant a motion to reconsider under either of those circumstances.” The court went on to determine that the new arguments advanced by the plaintiff were unpersuasive in any event, finding that the 3rd Circuit had not held section 27 of the FDIA to be unambiguous in its meaning and that application of the FDIC’s rule did not create an impermissible retroactive effect.
California bankruptcy court says a forbearance that modifies the original loan is subject to state usury laws in certain instances
Earlier this year, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California granted in part and denied in part cross-motions for summary judgment in an action concerning “piecemeal exemptions” to California’s usury law. Plaintiffs entered into a loan agreement secured by their residence carrying an interest rate of 11.3 percent and a default interest rate of 17.3 percent (plus late fees) with a then-unlicensed lender. They also signed a promissory note, which stated that should they fail to make a monthly payment within 10 days of the due date they would be assessed a late charge equal to 10 percent of the monthly payment. After plaintiffs struggled to make payments, the parties entered into an extension agreement to supplement and amend the original loan (but not replace it), which slightly lowered the initial interest rate but increased the monthly payments and default interest rate. The extension also included language adding a charge on the final balloon payment that was not part of the original loan. Plaintiffs again began to miss loan payments and sought to refinance the loan with a different lender. A payoff quote provided by the defendant included what was originally called a “prepayment penalty” but was later changed to represent a late charge on the principal balance in line with the extension.
Plaintiffs sued the defendant and related parties in state court, seeking damages and alleging claims related to breach of contract, fraud, and intentional interference. After the court denied plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction, plaintiffs filed an appeal on the same day one of the plaintiffs filed for bankruptcy. The defendant eventually filed a motion for summary judgment on the claims in the amended complaint, whereas plaintiffs sought partial summary judgment on several new claims, including that (i) the extension violated state usury law; (ii) the defendant “demanded an illegal acceleration penalty” from plaintiffs; and (iii) the defendant illegally charged multiple late fees on a single loan payment.
In a case of first impression, the court held that under California law, a loan extension that modifies the original loan, including by extending the maturity date, is considered a forbearance subject to state usury laws because there was no other sale, lease, or other transaction involved. The court noted that the statute “provides a restricted definition of the term ‘arranged’ in relation to a forbearance,” and that it also “painstakingly sets forth the instances in which a forbearance negotiated by a real estate broker would be exempt under usury law: when that broker was previously involved in arranging the original loan and that loan was in connection with a sale, lease, or other transaction, or when that broker had previously arranged for the sale, lease or other transaction for compensation.” The court further stated that “[c]onspicuously absent from those instances is a scenario in which a forbearance is arranged on a simple loan of money secured by real estate, with no other sale, lease, or other transaction involved,” adding that it “cannot create an exemption here to save [the defendant].” In the subject transaction, the real estate broker involved when the original loan was made was not involved in the extension, the court said.
The court also held that the loan forbearance violated California usury laws although the original loan was exempt from usury laws, disagreeing with the defendant’s position that “an originally non-usurious transaction cannot be transformed into a usurious transaction at a later point.” The court pointed out the distinction in this case from others cited by the defendant, stating that the “difference between a non-usurious loan and a loan subject to an exemption is slight but distinct. . . . Once the exemption (no real estate broker involved) ceased to apply, the exemption disappeared, and the transaction became subject to the full consequences of the usury law.” Because the extension’s interest rate and default interest rate both violated state usury law, the defendant is entitled only to the principal balance of the extension minus the amount of usurious interest paid.
Additionally, the court determined that under California law, the liquidated damages provision of the loan extension was separate from the interest charged by the extension, and a late charge on top of a balloon payment under extension was an unenforceable penalty provision instead of a valid provision for liquidated damages. The court also declined to consider punitive or other damages and said it will make a determination in the future as to what the defendant is entitled to by way of reimbursements or costs, as well as any interest accrued and owed after the extension’s maturity date.
Connecticut fines collection agency $10,000 for violating usury laws
On June 28, the Connecticut Department of Banking issued a consent order against a licensed consumer collection agency for allegedly engaging in numerous violations of state law. These include (i) collecting on loans made by unlicensed lenders affiliated with federally-recognized Native American tribes that violate state usury laws; (ii) commingling operating monies from its business account with funds in its trust accounts; and (iii) engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices by advertising financial products and services of unlicensed affiliates in communications with consumers. According to the order, an examination found that the company collected on loans made by unlicensed lenders affiliated with Native American tribes that charged interest rates exceeding state limits, and that the company received payments on small loans that violated other state statutes. The Connecticut Department of Banking noted that, pursuant to a Connecticut Supreme Court decision in Great Plains Lending, LLC v. Department of Banking, consumer collection agencies are prohibited “from collecting on small loans made by unlicensed persons, including lenders affiliated with Native American tribes." Such loans are considered void and unenforceable, the Department said.
While the company neither admitted nor denied any of the allegations, it voluntarily agreed to the imposition of sanctions to obviate the need for formal administrative proceedings. Under the terms of the consent order, the company must pay a $10,000 civil penalty, refund all amounts collected from Connecticut borrowers as payment on small loans made by unlicensed lenders affiliated with federally recognized Native-American tribes, implement appropriate policies and procedures, cease and desist from soliciting financial services products in its collection communications with consumers, and cease and desist from collecting, attempting to collect, and receiving payment on small loans not made in compliance with state law.
9th Circuit to rehear en banc whether tribal lenders can arbitrate RICO claims
On June 6, a majority of nonrecused active judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a previously issued opinion that said tribal lenders could arbitrate Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) class action claims, saying it will rehear the case en banc. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last September the 9th Circuit panel majority concluded that “an agreement delegating to an arbitrator the gateway question of whether the underlying arbitration agreement is enforceable must be upheld unless that specific delegation provision is itself unenforceable.” The panel reviewed whether California residents who received loans from an online lender were allowed to pursue class RICO claims based on allegations that they were charged interest rates exceeding state limits from lenders claiming tribal immunity. The district court granted class certification and ruled that the entire arbitration agreement, including provisions containing a class action waiver, was unenforceable. On appeal, the panel majority cited to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, which determined, among other things, that when a party challenges an entire agreement—not just an arbitration provision—deciding “gateway” issues such as enforceability must be delegated to an arbitrator. “[W]hen there is a clear delegation provision, that question is . . . for the arbitrator to decide so long as the delegation provision itself does not eliminate parties’ rights to purse their federal remedies,” the majority wrote. The dissenting judge held, however, that the panel majority “misunderstood the effect of the choice-of-law provisions in the agreements,” arguing that the provisions curtail an arbitrator’s authority by allowing application of “only tribal law and a small and irrelevant subset of federal law,” thus preventing an arbitrator “from applying the law necessary to determine whether the delegation provisions and the arbitration agreements are valid.” He further contended that the panel majority’s decision diverged from decisions reached by several sister circuits, which “have consistently condemned the arbitration agreements embedded in tribal internet payday loan agreements, including those used by the very same lenders as in this case.”
District Court grants final approval of a $500 million tribal lending settlement
On May 12, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval of a nearly $500 million class action settlement resolving allegations that tribal online lending companies charged usurious interest rates. Plaintiffs’ filings outline their class action against tribal entities, as well as several of the entities’ non-tribal business partners (individual defendants), for making and collecting on high-interest loans.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit previously upheld a district court’s denial of defendants’ bid to dismiss or compel arbitration in the case (covered by InfoBytes here). The 4th Circuit concluded that the arbitration clauses in the loan agreements impermissibly forced borrowers to waive their federal substantive rights under federal consumer protection laws, and contained an unenforceable tribal choice-of-law provision because Virginia law caps general interest rates at 12 percent. As such, the appellate court stated that the entire arbitration provision was unenforceable. “The [t]ribal [l]enders drafted an invalid contract that strips borrowers of their substantive federal statutory rights,” the appellate court wrote. “[W]e cannot save that contract by revising it on appeal.”
The 4th Circuit also declined to extend tribal sovereign immunity to the tribal officials, determining that while “the tribe itself retains sovereign immunity, it cannot shroud its officials with immunity in federal court when those officials violate applicable state law.” The appellate court further noted that the “Supreme Court has explicitly blessed suits against tribal officials to enjoin violations of federal and state law.”
Following more than three years of litigation, the parties eventually reached a settlement that will include tribal officials canceling approximately $450 million in debt. As part of the settlement, the tribal officials will eliminate the balance on any outstanding loans on the basis that the debts are disputed, cease all collection activity, and will not sell, transfer, or assign any outstanding loans for collection. Tribal officials will also request deletion of any negative tradelines for loans in the name of tribal officials or tribal corporations, and will pay an additional $1 million to cover the costs of notice and administration for the settlement and $75,000 to go towards service awards. Additionally, the individual defendants will create a $39 million common fund that will go to class members who repaid unlawful amounts on their loans. Class counsel is also seeking attorneys’ fees and costs totaling around $13 million.
Special Alert: Federal court says state bank, fintech partner must face Maryland’s allegation of unlicensed lending before state ALJ
A federal court late last month told a state-chartered bank and its fintech partner that they must return to a state administrative law proceeding to fight a Maryland enforcement action alleging that their failure to obtain a license to lend and collect on loans violated state law — potentially rendering the terms of certain loans unenforceable.
The Missouri-chartered bank and its partners attempted to remove an action brought by the Office of the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, but the district court determined that removal was not proper and that Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings was the appropriate venue.
OCFR initially filed charges in January 2021 in Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings against the bank and its partner asserting the bank made installment and consumer loans and extended open-ended or revolving credit in the state without being licensed or qualifying for an exception to licensure. As a result, OCFR said they “‘may not receive or retain any principal, interest, or other compensation with respect to any loan that is unenforceable under this subsection.’” It said that not only are the bank’s loans to all Maryland consumers possibly unenforceable, but also that the bank, or its agents or assigns, could in the alternative be “prohibited from collecting the principal amount of those loans from any of these consumers or from collecting any other money related to those loans.”
The OCFR’s charge letter also said the fintech company that provided services to the bank violated the Maryland Credit Services Business Act by providing advice and/or assistance to consumers in the state “with regard to obtaining an extension of credit for the consumer when accepting and/or processing credit applications on behalf of the Bank without a credit services business license.” Additionally, the OCFR alleged violations of the Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act related to whether the fintech company engaged in unlicensed collection activities, thus subjecting it to the imposition of fines, restitutions, and other non-monetary remedial action.
The defendants filed a notice of removal to federal court last year while the enforcement action was still pending before the OAH; OCFR moved to remand the case back to the agency.
In granting the OCFR’s motion to remand, the court concluded that the OCFR persuasively argued that the defendants have not properly removed this case from the OAH for several reasons, including that the OAH does not function as a state court. “Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, a defendant may remove to federal court ‘any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction.’” However, the court determined that, while defendants correctly observed that the OAH possesses certain “court-like” attributes, its limitations clearly showed that it does not function as a state court.
In reaching this conclusion, the court considered several undisputed facts, including that the OCFR is a unit of the Maryland Department of Labor “responsible for, among other things, issuing licenses to entities wishing to issue loans to consumers in Maryland and investigating violations of Maryland’s consumer loan laws.” The court also said that, while OCFR has authority under Maryland law to investigate potential violations of law or regulation and has the ability to issue cease and desist orders, revoke an individual’s license, or issue fines, it cannot enforce its own subpoenas or orders — and that its decisions are not final and may be appealed to a state circuit court.
The defendants had argued that the case involved a federal question as a result of the complete preemption of state usury laws by Section 27 of the FDI Act. The court said licensure, not state usury law claims, was the issue at hand.
During a status conference held last month to discuss OCFR’s motion to remand, defendants requested an opportunity to file a motion certifying the case for appeal. The court will hold in abeyance its remand order pending resolution of that motion. Parties’ briefings are due by the end of May.
If you have any questions regarding the ruling or its ramifications, please contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
Florida court grants sovereign immunity to lender and company officials
On April 11, a Florida county court concluded that a defendant lender and certain company officials were entitled to sovereign immunity in a case concerning alleged usury claims. The plaintiff claimed the lender used its supposed federally-recognized tribal affiliation to escape state usury regulations. The court dismissed the complaint, however, finding that the lender is an “arm of the tribe” under a six-prong test established by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Breakthrough Management Group, Inc. v. Chukchansi Gold Casino & Resort. The test determines whether sovereign immunity should apply by examining, among other factors, an entity’s creation, the amount of control a tribe has over the entity, and the financial relationship between the tribe and the entity. According to the court, the defendant’s evidence suggests that the tribe created the defendant as a business entity “to generate and contribute revenues” to the tribe’s general fund. The court found that insufficient detail was presented to support the plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant pays a relatively small percentage of its gross revenues to the tribe. The court added that the plaintiff also failed to present evidence proving that large portions of the defendant’s revenue were distributed to non-tribal entities. In dismissing the case with prejudice, the court also dismissed claims against three individual defendants because they were entitled to sovereign immunity. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations demonstrated that the individuals committed the alleged wrongs in their capacities as employees and officers and therefore the “real party in interest” is the lender.